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The Modern NBA Dictionary

From “advanced stats” to “Woj bomb,” here are the verbs, adjectives, nouns, and phrases you need to understand basketball in 2019-20

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Two weeks ago, my dad asked me what the word “stan” means. We were in his living room, sitting on opposite couches, rewatching Game 4 of the Warriors-Blazers Western Conference finals. He was scrolling through Twitter, and read one of my own tweets back to me. “What is ‘stan,’” he asked, “and why are you doing it to Mark Ruffalo?” I don’t live in the same state as my dad anymore. We don’t even live in the same country. But we talk NBA almost every day. We talk NBA, we talk Twitter, we talk “NBA Twitter,” and we talk my Twitter. My dad loved the NBA long before I was born, but began following it again closely only in the past couple of years, partially because of me, partially because of how fun the league has become. It was easy enough for him to jump back in and learn the new teams, systems, players, and trends, but some terms are so foreign or have such bizarre origins that he just prefers to ask.

So here are some necessary modern NBA terms ahead of the 2019-20 season. Some are basic, some niche. All will help you understand the weird, wild world that is the NBA in 2019.

advanced stats (n.): Statistics that go beyond the box score to give you a better understanding of a team’s or player’s effectiveness, but only after you figure out what things like C3PM and FBPs mean. Used all the time in arguments on the internet. Great sleep aid.

analytics (n.): A fancier way to say stats.

burner (n.): A secret social media account that is used in addition to a person’s publicly operated social media account. Its purpose is to allow famous figures to talk anonymously about other players, justify past decisions, and defend collar size.

cap space (n.): The amount of money a franchise has left to spend on its roster. If you’ve run out of things to say in a conversation about the NBA, say that the team in question needs to “clear cap” for the future. It’s almost always true.

efficiency (n.): How productive a player is with his time in the game. Often measured by PER. The basis for every modern offense. The fuel behind the anti-Westbrook agenda.

empty stats (n.): Stats that theoretically mean less because a player gets them almost by default. This is often said about players on bad teams, the logic being that the shots, points, rebounds, assists, and other counting stats that a player records have to come from somebody. Also said when a player racks up rebounds that simply fall to him.

find a new slant (phrase): When it was discovered in 2018 that either Sixers honcho Bryan Colangelo or his wife was using multiple burner accounts on Twitter to voice complaints about the team, one of the tweets that surfaced was a defense of Colangelo’s shirt collars. It was a long-standing joke among a subset of Philly fans that Colangelo’s collars were unusually large; user @Philly_Asshole tweeted, “This dude just love collars.” One of the burner accounts, Enoughunkownsources, responded: “That is a normal collar. Move on, find a new slant.”

flip the switch (phrase): When a team or player suddenly improves and maintains that improvement for the rest of a game or season. For some reason, the switch is only ever flipped to “on.” You’d never say that a team on a 13-game losing streak “flipped the switch.”

force a trade (phrase): When a player asks his team to trade him. Also more gently referred to as “requesting a trade” or “asking for a trade.” Has bad connotations for fans over 55 years old. Antonym: loyalty. (See: It’s a business.)

future asset (n.): A draft pick.

heat check (n.): A wild-ass shot taken after many successful attempts. Often a miss.

Hinkie, Sam (n.): The former general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers (2013-16). Blatantly sacrificed the short-term success of the team in the hopes that it would bring future success; traded away quality players and veterans to lose an egregious number of games and accrue draft picks. (See: tanking.) Proverbially died for Philly’s sins. (Didn’t really die; resigned in April 2016 but is believed to have been forced out.) Really only referred to as “Hinkie.” Like Madonna.

it’s a business: (phrase): The reasoning behind most off-court decisions. Often said after a front office trades away a player, but also when a player requests a trade. The more ruthless the trade, the more you’ll hear it. (Antonym: we’re a family.)

Kardashian curse (n.): The implication that dating one of the Kardashians will jinx a player; an excuse fans use when their team’s player is actually just bad. A good indication that it’s time to walk away from the man (it’s always a man) you’re having a conversation with.

Klutch Sports (n.): An agency headed by Rich Paul. It represents LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Ben Simmons, among others. Often at the forefront of many discussions and controversies (see: player empowerment). Take it as a red flag if a player on your team who may be unhappy signs with Klutch.

League Pass team (n.): A team that isn’t on national television often but is fun and watchable.

load management (n.): Used by team PR when a healthy player sits out a game as a precaution. Seen with older players or those who have recently recovered from an injury. Formerly known as rest.

luxury tax (n.): A spending penalty for teams. If a team spends more than the luxury-tax limit, it has to pay a tax for every dollar it goes over. Teams that repeatedly overspend (called repeat offenders) have to pay a higher luxury tax. Some owners are willing to spend that extra money in taxes, and some aren’t. The luxury tax threshold changes year-by-year. Good term to drop in any sentence to sound smarter regardless of context.

make the leap (phrase): When a player improves so significantly that it elevates him in NBA status, even if what counts as a “leap” is extremely vague. A good thing to say about any 25-and-under non-superstar is, “I hope he makes the leap this season.”

Monstars (n.): An über-talented team of aliens from the 1996 movie Space Jam. Perpetually referenced when a team is playing well; much like how people on Twitter have never read a book besides Harry Potter and are metaphorically bound to Hogwarts, basketball fans have never seen a movie besides Space Jam.

Moreyball (n.): A system that prioritizes 3-pointers and layups in the name of efficiency. Popularized by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey; revered by analytics heads.

NBA Reddit (n.): Subreddit where NBA fans engage in conversations and arguments. Like NBA Twitter, but largely anonymous, thus more rogue.

NBA Reddit Streams (n.): A now-defunct subreddit that used to provide free (read: illegal) streams to games. It’s important to look sad when people bring NBA Streams up in conversation. RIP.

NBA Twitter (n.): Subset of Twitter where NBA fans, reporters, and analysts engage in conversations and arguments. To jump-start your Twitter career, argue that a historically great player wasn’t actually that good.

one-and-done (n.): Players who play in college for just one year before entering the NBA. A league rule states that a player must be one year out of high school before he can declare for the NBA draft. (Players can also play professionally overseas or train in the interim.) Might end soon.

pace-and-space (n.): A modern offense that employs many shooters (see: spacing) and pushes the speed.

player empowerment (n.): The trend of players moving to other teams more frequently and of their own volition through forced trades. Not super popular with team owners and older white guys. Coincidentally, most team owners are older white guys.

positionless basketball (n.): When traditional standards for each position (height, skill set, etc.) are less rigid.

pre-agency (n.): Forbidden recruiting that happens before the official start of free agency. Think of it like texting, calling, meeting, and committing to date someone while still in a relationship with someone else.

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Process, the (n.): What Philadelphia called its painful rebuild under Hinkie. Began in 2013. Trust it.

protected pick (n.): A draft pick acquired through a trade; it comes with stipulations. For example, if the Kings were to get a “top-10-protected” 2020 draft pick from the Celtics in a trade, and then the Celtics wind up with the seventh pick in the 2020 draft, the Celtics would keep the pick. If the Celtics wind up with the 11th pick in the 2020 draft, the Kings get the pick. (The Kings are pretty unlucky, so the latter seems unlikely.)

rental (n.): A player traded with one year left on his contract. The practice could be coming more popular after rentals of Paul George in Oklahoma City (initially, anyway) and Kawhi Leonard in Toronto worked out for those respective franchises.

salary cap (n.): The amount of money each team can spend on its roster. The figure changes each season based on league revenue. It’s a soft cap, which means that teams can actually go over the spending limit (see: luxury tax). If you’re wondering what the point of a salary cap is, then, if it allows richer teams which can afford to spend more to do so, and if it does not actually enforce spending parity, I will give you Adam Silver’s personal cell number, and you can ask yourself.

small ball (n.): Playing a shorter lineup to create mismatches against bigger defenders who have trouble guarding smaller players. (Verb: going small.)

shoot a 3, you coward (phrase): In a 2018 tweet directed to Sixers guard Ben Simmons, who until last week has resisted shooting 3s, user @Jack_Michael17 sent, “Ben Simmons take a three you coward.” The phrase has evolved into “shoot a 3, you coward.” This is a very important meme upon which many other “you coward” memes have been based.

shoot your shot (phrase): Taking a risk in the hopes that something good will come from it. Despite being frequently used on NBA Twitter, it doesn’t usually have anything to do with basketball. Often used in reference to an unsuccessful effort to approach uninterested women. Can also say, “Shooters shoot.”

supermax (n.): Formally called the “designated veteran player provision,” the supermax is a boatload of money that a teams can offer to players who meet certain qualifications. (It’s a five-year contract that pays out 35 percent of the salary cap with an 8-percent hike each year).

sneaky athletic (adj.): This is a white.

spacing (n.): The result of putting multiple shooters on the floor, who will then draw defenders out to the perimeter, creating openings for the ball handler to drive to the rim. Teams that “spread the floor” have good spacing.

switching (v.): Defenders moving onto each others’ player assignments while defending a screen. Literally just switching the players they’re guarding. So simple. Unless you’re Terry Stotts.

tampering (v.): Engaging in league-prohibited recruiting conversations or publicly commenting about a player under contract with another team. Nearly impossible to get caught doing, unless you’re Magic Johnson.

tanking (v.): Losing on purpose to get better odds at a high draft pick.

tax apron (n.): A salary threshold higher than the luxury tax. The league punishes teams that go over the tax apron with further restrictions. (For example, they can’t acquire a player through a sign-and-trade.)

thicc (adj.): A heftier player who should not be body shamed!

2019 NBA Japan Games: Toronto Raptors v Houston Rockets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

travel (n.): James Harden’s double-stepback.

triple-double (n.): Accumulating double digits in three separate statistical categories in a game. A highly regarded and applauded feat, unless Russell Westbrook is the one doing it. (You’re going to have to choose a stance on Westbrook.)

unicorn (n.): A player who possesses the size of a big man and the skill set of a guard.

washed (adj.): The condition of being past one’s prime and no longer able to contribute. Often pronounced in song form.

wingspan (n.): Distance from fingertip to fingertip. Very seductive.

Woj bomb (n.): A tweet from Adrian Wojnarowski that contains reported news such as a player trade, draft selection, etc. Often two minutes before a Shams bomb. I’m kidding. It’s three minutes.

In an earlier version of this piece, the “cap space” entry contained erroneous information about the luxury tax; that has been removed.


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